Native American Boarding Schools
and Religious Archives

A Brief Resource Guide

Accessibility, Archives, and Native American Boarding Schools: Pathways for Catholic History

March 24-25, 2023
Tuscon, Arizona and online via Zoom
This two-day, hybrid conference brings together academic historians and archivists to discuss Native American Boarding Schools and the recorded legacy of the Catholic Church in their operation, roughly from 1819 to 1969.

The Role of Archives in Truth and Healing

In response to requests from the CMSM and LCWR for guidance on how they might address the issue of Native American Boarding Schools, particularly their members’ historical involvement as reflected in their archival collections, the ACWR and Catholic Native Boarding School Accountability and Healing Project are recommending this resource guide for your consideration.

Data Sovereignty

A robust discussion presently exists over rights to data and access to information: data sovereignty is a concept revolving around the legal and ethical questions of information ownership. Does the data belong to the Native community from which data was collected, or the institute who collected it?

In our quest for healing, religious institutions might consider how they can best serve as vehicles for the just redistribution and appropriate sharing of data. More information about data sovereignty may be found at

Where to Begin: First Steps

Determine whether your community holds archives related to your operation of or other involvement with Native American boarding schools. Your archivist should be able to help you with this. Key records to look for are annual or monthly mission reports, government contracts, house annals, attendance ledgers, faculty & student lists, correspondence with the chancery or civil or Native officials.

Begin to organize basic facts about the school(s) with which you were involved: How long was this school open? How many students attended this school across its existence? What kinds of records do you hold? What is the status of those records? Where are they?

Determine what kind of records your community is unwilling to share (e.g., personnel records). Be clear about why not. The goal is to be as transparent as possible while respecting both the community and the tribal nations’ privacy needs.

As early in the process as possible, reach out to the tribal nation(s) impacted by the school(s) with which your community was involved to build relationships and to determine proper protocols. Most tribal nations have a Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) responsible for the archival records for their communities and may serve as the initial point of contact for non- Native agencies. If there is no THPO, contact the tribal government. Ask who would be the best person to work with. Let them know that your community has records regarding a boarding school that members of their community attended, and that you want to make sure these records can eventually be accessed by families. Commit to involving them in each step of the process.

Create a “finding aid” – an inventory or catalog – of the relevant records. Depending on the scope of your collection, a brief summary of the collection as a whole, or summaries of each file folder, would be helpful. (Contact ACWR for guidance on how to do this.)

Work with the Native community to determine what records can and should be shared, the manner by which they are shared (such as in an online format or in person), what records are sensitive and should be restricted, what cultural protocols should be kept in mind, and the interpretive lens through which records can be read.

Work with the tribal nation(s) involved to establish a process for determining wider access to records. Boarding school records are not only about you and your community; they are very much about Indigenous people and their history. It is important to respect their right to determine who gets to research and share their story. Religious communities should work with tribal nations to create bodies of approval that determine research access. Many tribal nations will already have established Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) for this purpose.

—This guidance summarizes insights from Maka Black Elk, Executive Director for Truth and Healing at the Jesuit Red Cloud Indian School and board member of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS).

Useful Links

Archivists for Congregations of Women Religious
The Role of Archives in Truth and Healing Webinar Series
Association of Catholic Diocesan Archivists (ACDA)
Managing Diocesan Archives and Records: A Guide for Bishops, Chancellors, and Archivists,” a publication of the ACDA
USCCB Subcommittee on Native American Affairs

“Bishops encourage cooperation to address church’s past in tribal schools,” NCR article

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition 2020 List of Schools Found by State

Leadership & Archival Relations

Forge a stronger relationship between the archives department & leadership. In religious communities, as decisions are discussed about the future of the congregation & its patrimony, archivists and leaders should make a concerted effort to work together to preserve the community’s records.
Open the channels of communication. Put “Archives” on your monthly meeting agenda. Archivists, consider how you might better support leadership & the ongoing initiatives of the community or diocese. Leaders, including the archivist in a conversation may open the doors to new ideas and projects.
Embrace external interest in your community or diocesan history and archives. Scholars, genealogists, constituents, former and ongoing ministries, Catholics, and many others have interests in your collections. Catholic orders and dioceses have often tended to the needs of marginalized groups; the history and experiences of many underrepresented populations are present in religious archives. Catholic history is social history, religious history, regional history, and the Church’s history!
Archives is a specialized field that entails professional preparation and ongoing education. Consider supporting your archivists participation in professional organizations like the Archivists for Congregations of Women Religious (ACWR) and the Association of Catholic Diocesan Archivists (ACDA), and their conferences. Show an interest in the information they bring back from those meetings.
By preserving and sharing the stories of Catholics past and present, archivists are your partners in ministry and help ensure the long- term preservation of your community’s charism and diocese’s legacy. Consider the archivist a vital part of your strategic planning team.

Religious Archives & Canon Law

Canonically, diocesan archives have very broad rules that also apply to “provincial archives” of religious institutes of men and women. Documents concerning the diocese or parish—or religious community—must be kept “with the greatest of care”: established in a safe location, filed in an orderly fashion, and locked. Inventories or catalogs called “finding aids” are to be made of the documents, with short synopses or summaries of the files.

The canonical regulations for curial archives refer to three types of archives— those for general documents concerning spiritual and temporal affairs; secret [restricted] archives; and historical archives. Practical considerations and current standards for effective records management play a role in determining access and organization strategies. Canon law does not have the last word on how knowledge is constructed, but it does provide some useful guidance for how it can be arranged and accessed.

Balancing Access and Confidentiality

While confidentiality applies to many items in religious archives, which are private, the purpose of most records kept there is to bring the story of the past exercise of the charism into the light of the present, whether the resulting historical narrative is favorable or not. There may also be situations where a person seeks access to archival material to which they have a right. According to canon law, “persons concerned have the right to receive, personally or by proxy, an authentic written or photostatic copy of documents which are of their nature public, and which concern their own personal status” (c. 487, §2).

In determining whether an institute’s record should be considered confidential (not accessible to the public), embargoed for a set period, or “open access” (accessible to the public without restriction), an archives access policy should be developed.

Some institutes have an open access policy with exceptions. In many institutions, the personnel files of members of the institute are often seen as privileged and not open for research. The archivist, then, is frequently in the position of gatekeeper between the institute—with its legitimate privacy concerns—and the interests of a researcher.

With respect to granting researchers access to archival files containing material on Native American boarding schools, consultation with both the institute’s archivist and with the tribal nations involved is essential. In this case, the archives access policy should be developed in collaboration with the relevant tribal nation(s).


Veronica Buchanan
Executive Secretary/Archivist
Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati
5900 Delhi Rd.
Mt. St. Joseph, OH 45051

[email protected]

Sr. Eleanor Craig, SL
Loretto Community Historian Loretto Heritage Center
515 Nerinx Rd.
Nerinx, KY 40049

[email protected]

Patrick Hayes, Ph.D.
Redemptorist Archives
c/o St. Peter the Apostle
1019 N. 5th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19123

[email protected]

Stephanie Jacobe, Ph.D.
Archdiocese of Washington
P. O. Box 29260 Washington, DC 20017-0260

[email protected]

Allison Spies
Archives Program Manager
Archdiocese of Saint Paul & Minneapolis
777 Forest Street
St. Paul, MN 55106

[email protected]